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Senators question attorney general on fentanyl, violent crimes

Garland says Justice Department focusing on fentanyl with ‘urgency’

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland is sworn in Wednesday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland is sworn in Wednesday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators focused on deaths from fentanyl and violent crime as Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appeared Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time in more than a year.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, used his opening remarks to highlight fentanyl and said lawmakers should recommit to tackling the issue.

“I hope, by this hearing, we will have a recommitment to convince the American people that we’re going to keep you safe,” Graham said. “That we’re going to have policies to deal with the poisoning of America from fentanyl.”

Overall, Graham said, crime is not being taken as seriously as it should. “On many fronts, law and order has broken down here at home and the world is in chaos,” Graham said.

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin pointed to the toll of gun violence and mass shootings in America, citing more than 6,800 shooting deaths and 94 mass shootings so far in 2023. And he mentioned that while statistics show a leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 45 is drug overdose, the top cause of death for children under 18 in America is gun violence.

“We can do both, we must do both,” the Illinois Democrat said regarding what the Justice Department should address.

Garland, in an opening statement, said DOJ is working with state and local partners to “combat the rise in violent crime that began in 2020.”

And Garland told the committee that the Justice Department, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, also is working to seize illegal drugs and illegal guns.

“For example, last year DEA and its partners seized enough fentanyl-laced pills and powder to kill every single American,” Garland said.

Garland, under questioning from Graham, described fentanyl as “a horrible epidemic, but it’s an epidemic that’s been unleashed on purpose” by cartels.

In response to a question from Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, Garland said the DOJ is focusing on fentanyl with “enormous urgency,” and he has traveled to Mexico and spoken with Mexican legal authorities to try to tackle the problem.

“We have our DEA working to prevent transfer of precursors into Mexico, to capture the labs, to extradite the cartel leaders, to arrest them in the United States,” Garland said.

Some Republicans have blamed the Biden administration’s migration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border for the rise in fatal fentanyl poisoning cases in the U.S., though data shows the great majority of fentanyl is seized at ports of entry and vehicle checkpoints.

President Joe Biden has said he wants to crack down on the trafficking of fentanyl — which he said kills 70,000 Americans each year — including by improving technology to inspect cargo coming across the border and working with mail couriers to improve package inspections.

Earlier this year, a DEA official told lawmakers at a House hearing that it is the agency’s “top legislative priority” to permanently schedule fentanyl-related substances — and Graham noted in his comments Wednesday that the temporary designation would soon expire.

“Mr. Chairman, I know you don’t want that to happen,” Graham said to Durbin.

Garland told the committee Wednesday that all fentanyl-related drugs should remain controlled substances. He said the Justice Department had a “major takedown” of two “dark web” sites that were trafficking in fentanyl, and the agency is using cybertools to take those websites down and arrest the operators.

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